- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dear Sgt Shaft, I am about to get a divorce from my retired military husband. I hope you can answer my question concerning Tricare.

My husband was drafted in 1968. He then joined the Army National Guard. We were married in August 1987. He retired in September 1992, having served 24 years. We were married for a total of just five years of his 24 years of service time. We have been married for a total of 20 years and one month. He turned 60 in 2007 and was eligible to draw his military retirement.

I have pre-existing medical conditions and have insurance only through him. Where can I find a legal answer to my question? - Dorothy, Missouri

Dear Dorothy,

My friends at the National Association for Uniform Services (NAUS) tell me that the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) or Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) support office should be able to provide a definitive answer to your question. DEERS is a worldwide, computerized database of uniformed-services members (sponsors), their family members and others who are eligible for military benefits, including Tricare. You can contact them at 800/538-9552. The phone number for the DMDC also is 800/538-9552.

In order to qualify for continued health care benefits, a former spouse would have to show that the service member had at least 20 years of creditable service, that the marriage lasted at least 20 years and that the period of the marriage overlapped that period of service by at least 20 years.

There is one exception. In the event the service member meets the first two criteria but the period of marriage overlaps the period of service by more than 15 but less than 20 years, the former spouse is entitled to Tricare benefits for a period of one year following the divorce.

The information provided in your e-mail suggests that you would not be eligible for Tricare benefits after your divorce, but you definitely should contact DEERS or the manpower center for an official determination.

Shaft notes

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity, recently conducted a hearing to review the Department of Veterans Affairs’ adapted housing grants programs. Veterans or service members who have specific service-connected disabilities may be entitled to a VA grant for the purpose of constructing an adapted home or modifying an existing home to meet their adaptive needs.

The goal of these programs is to provide a barrier-free living environment that affords the veterans or service members a level of independent living that they may not normally enjoy. The hearing specifically addressed the flexibility and sufficiency of the existing grants to address the current needs of veterans.

“According to the Defense Manpower Data Center at the Department of Defense, approximately 35,000 service members have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Mrs. Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota Democrat. “Today, we will receive timely testimony that foreshadows the increased need for adaptive housing grants. In caring for our injured men and women in uniform, we must continue to address their needs so they may live as independently as possible after their honorable military service.”

Three types of grants are administered by VA to assist severely disabled veterans in their adaptive housing needs. The Specially Adapted Housing Grant is generally used to create a wheelchair-accessible home. The Special Home Adaptations Grant is generally used to assist veterans with mobility throughout their homes. The Temporary Residence Adaptation Grant is available to eligible veterans temporarily residing in a home owned by a family member.

Thomas Zampieri of the Blinded Veterans Association provided testimony about the need for sufficient adaptive housing grants for veterans. He said it is “important that adaptive housing basic grant adjustments keep pace with residential home cost-of-construction index for each preceding year for labor and construction materials.”

If disabled veterans are not able to make adaptive changes to their homes, they run the risk of falls and injuries that result in expensive emergency-room visits and costly hospital admissions. Further, if accessible housing grants are not sufficient to allow disabled veterans to live independently at home, the alternative high cost of institutional care in nursing homes will occur, he said.

Mr. Zampieri also reported that current blindness standards are overly restrictive, hurting “functionally blinded” veterans from the Iraq and Afghan wars and some veterans with visual impairments caused by traumatic brain injuries requiring assistance and adaptive technology “because they would never qualify for this current 5/200 standard leaving them with no grants.”

Mark Bologna, director of Loan Guarantee Services at VA, discussed recent improvements: “Congress changed the program from a one-time to a three-time use program. This change has allowed individuals to make additional adaptations to their homes or upgrade existing adaptations. If they move to other homes and have remaining eligibility, they may now use the program to adapt the new homes as well. These legislative changes have significantly improved the benefits available to severely injured veterans and service members and have increased the overall flexibility of the [Specially Adapted Housing Grants] program.”

“Every year, we have a new pool of veterans returning from the combat zones with serious injuries that include losing a limb, loss of vision, or suffering from traumatic brain injury,” said Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Now, more than ever, VA needs to actively advocate and provide support for wounded veterans, and the adaptive housing grant program is absolutely instrumental in the reintegration efforts of these heroes.”

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, DC 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330, call 202/257-5446 or e-mail sgtshaft@bavf.org.

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